8 Lessons in parenting from Agile Scrum training with master Ken Rubin
Last week I spent three days in training for Agile practices and scrum at scale for large organizations for work. The training was conducted by the man who literally wrote the book, in this case the best selling Agile book on Amazon, Essential Scrum, Ken Rubin. I admit I was hesitant going in as I thought I knew the majority of scrum principles and it would be redundant for me as I’ve been participating in and running versions of scrum for nearly 10 years, but I was quite wrong. See, there is scrum, there is what we were doing, and there is scrum at scale. Each of these is subtly different, but the end result was that we weren’t being as effective as we could be. This training was a great reminder of that. You see, much like the retrospective part of scrum, training can be a great time to pause, reflect on what you’re doing, and adapt. On day two of the training, I realized that many of the principles we were covering for work actually applied to parenting as well.
Agile is a product development philosophy that focuses on incremental improvements, measuring results, and making changes frequently. It formed with manufacturing companies who needed to deliver high quality products quickly and efficiently but has been adopted to many other types of business, most notable software development. Scrum is a specific implementation of Agile in which teams “sprint” or run set length iterations of work. At the beginning of the sprint, teams plan their work by estimating what they believe they will get done, and defining “acceptance criteria” or the specific things that qualify the work to be “done”. At the end of the sprint, teams show their work to their stakeholders to get agreement that the work is truly done in a sprint review or demo. The team also reviews internally in a retrospective where they look at what worked, what didn’t, and what they will do differently. These are the principles I found that could help me as a parent, and may help you too.
Inspect & Adapt
The first and foremost principle of Agile is to inspect and adapt. Plans are great, but the minute a plan goes into execution, the plan is only as good as the assumptions were. Things change, unknown details come to light, and unless you change and adapt with them, you will fail. When new data is found, embrace it and make changes. Of course you need to do the same with small children. Things change so quickly it is unreasonable to believe that what is true today will be true tomorrow. Feeding schedules, sleep times, favorite toys; these all change frequently and you need to adapt or you will suffer. Kids change, embrace it. Find what works for you. In today’s world of infinite advice online, don’t believe everything you read (except my writing of course) and try out different things to see what works for you.
Set goals, measure results, make changes
In order to know if you are succeeding, you first have to set a goal. Do you want to be a stern parent who derives respect or a “cool” parent who is friends with their kid. Maybe you aim to get a certain number of hours of sleep each night. Whatever your goals are, you need to actually define them and know what you are going to measure to know if you succeeded. A good framework for this is called SMART, in which a goal must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. In other words, you need to know when you want to complete the goal and how you will measure if it was achieved. Make sure the goals are reasonable as well. Having a goal to get your 6-month old to talk is probably not going to happen and missing the goal will just be demotivating. After your goal date, measure against the goal and reflect back on what you’ve learned. Now you get to refine or set a new goal for the next iteration.
Reflect and Retrospect
At the end of each iteration, take the time to review, reflect, and retrospect on your progress toward the goal. A popular method for this is asking what went well, what did not go well, and what you’ll do differently or change in the next iteration. This is the true power of sprinting, the frequent checkpoints on progress and adaption. You’re probably not alone in this process, so include your partner and other “stakeholders”. If your child can talk, why not include them to get feedback and include them in the process? Discuss your goals and whether or not they were achieved. What could have been done better. What did you learn during this sprint that might help in future ones? It’s a great way to make sure you’re always growing and getting better as a parent.
Finished is better than started
A message that really stuck with me from the training was that you need to focus on what gets finished, not what gets started. This is a great productivity tip that applies far beyond software development. You don’t get points for starting things, only for getting them done. So often we try to accomplish too many things simultaneously, multitasking and switching between them, and end up not finishing any of them the way we originally intended. Quality is usually the first thing missed. In software, this tends to be tests. With parenting, it might be getting only partial results or possibly getting the end result, but not the way you wanted to, or at the expense of other goals.
Don’t add tech debt
In software development, when corners are cut, things are rushed, and tasks get re-prioritized, important work or “the right thing to do” gets pushed back to do “later”, which of course never happens. This work to be done at a future date is called tech debt, and it represents all of the shortcuts taken and work that needs to be done to undo these bad choices. Like actual debt, it represents both a cost to pay down the debt as well as interest that is continually paid over time if the debt isn’t paid off. Think of this work like a mortgage payment, sure you can pay the minimum over 30 years, but you’ll be paying almost all interest for the first several years. With children, anything you put of for later will likely end up in the same state. Goals and work you need to put in now, if deferred to later, result in interest payments of extra time to get caught back up and the cost of getting there. Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can get done today.
Small batch sizes
The best way to make sure you actually finish things is to minimize multitasking or “batch sizes”. Focus on a single item and do it well. Don’t sacrifice quality and make sure you’re completing all of the acceptance criteria before you consider it done and crossed off. Don’t try to change sleep patterns, food types or schedules, or the books or toys you use all at the same time. It is unrealistic to think you can simultaneously develop motor skills and language development. Focus on one at a time and you may even teach your child to have a longer attention span and improved focus themselves.
Focus on customer benefits
Popular with software companies, the credo of thinking customer first is taking over more and more companies. Amazon even uses this, one of its leadership principles, as the process for all new work, called working backward, where product development is started from what the end user will see and taken backward from there to the actual design and implementation. Though the customer is often talked about, the ideas is really that work should be prioritized based on the benefit to the end user. For parents, this means working backward from the benefit to your child. A goal of more sleep is great, but are you aiming for it so that you can get more rest, or so that your child has the important deep sleep cycles that foster development? Is your priority for the next week or two to improve motor skills, language, or social skills? Focusing on the actual benefit for your child will guide your priorities, help you define goals, and measure if you are succeeding. It may seem obvious, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that the most important participant in parenting is the child. Remember, the customer is always right — unless they are a toddler who just wants to argue.
Expect the unexpected and accept that you won’t get things right the first time
No one is perfect. Even if you get everything right with one child, another may be completely different. Accept that things will change and you can’t anticipate everything. Part of the magic and joy of raising a child are the little unexpected occurrences. Embrace these and enjoy these little surprises. Sure some may be finding a booger where you would rather not, but for each of these there may be an unexpected smile, laugh, or learned to interact with something new. These little moments are what make being a parent special. Trust me, at some point you’ll realize you are irrationally proud of your child for figuring out how to roll a ball. I know I have.
Agile as a philosophy isn’t just for manufacturing a product or building software. The tools and principles it brings can apply to so many things in life. Taking a positive attitude about the unexpected and change is a real way to go about life, but especially as a parent. Shifting your mentality to embrace change, learn from it, and improve constantly will make you a more efficient and productive parent and your kids will thank you. You’ll probably even get a huge smile from them. Though that may also just be because they are working on something huge in their diaper.